May 29, 2019Van Groningen growers diversify crop selection
Fourth-generation growers lead Van Groningen & Sons, and with a fifth crop of family in the field, so to speak, the vertical grower-shipper-marketer is prepared to navigate the future of produce.
What started as a dairy farm near Fresno in 1922 has over the years diversified to include vegetables, fruits, nuts and even forage crops.
“We have always strived to be diversified in what we grow to protect ourselves from poor markets for certain crops each year,” said Ryan Van Groningen, a fourth-generation grower and president of the company. His great-grandfather, Henry, started the company after immigrating from the Netherlands in 1910. Sons Art and Henry Jr. continued the company as a partnership for 25 years, and Art’s four sons – Robert, Dan, John and Marvin – followed suit. Ryan and others in the family’s fourth generation – his brother Jason, his cousin Bryan, and his brother-in-law Paul – are a part of the company today.
“We have hopes that there will be a fifth generation to come,” he said. “My oldest nephew is currently in college where my kids are still young at ages 11, 9 and 7.”
Today, Van Groningen & Sons operates under the company values of faith, family, community and integrity. The company cultivates several thousand acres near Manteca, California, where it grows melons, pumpkins, almonds, walnuts and various forage crops.
“We do have contracted independent growers in other locations to lengthen our season with melons and sweet corn,” Ryan said. Independent growers are based across California in places such as El Centro, Brawley and Bakersfield.
“We are vertically integrated, which allows us to operate as lean as possible from the field to the store shelves with our products,” Ryan said. “We are also family owned and operated, which allows us to connect to the consumer well.”
Van Groningen gets involved in marketing, with brand names like Yosemite Fresh melons, Pamper’D Pumpkins and Dutch Treat Sweet Corn.
Ryan said the Yosemite brand was introduced in the 1990s by his dad, Dan, who is a fan of Yosemite National Park – roughly a two-hour drive from the farm.
“Our seed is not proprietary but we do use the best possible growing practices to produce the best tasting fruits and vegetables,” he said. A 2006 study by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, found that Yosemite Fresh watermelons contained 10.6 percent sugar – higher than the four other brands included in the study.
Yosemite Fresh melons also had thicker rinds, according to the study.
Van Groningen regularly sends out crop updates and recipes promoting sales. The group has been growing mini watermelons for more than a decade, watching their popularity increase.
“Convenience continues to be a huge motivator in terms of purchasing,” Van Groningen said. “Summertime still promotes large watermelon purchasing but we are seeing great success during the winter months with selling mini watermelons versus large full-size watermelons. People that live in the big cities with limited living and refrigerator space also flock to a smaller-size personal watermelon.”
How they grow it
Ryan’s brother Jason Van Groningen is the vice president of farm operations while his cousin Bryan Van Groningen is vice president of crops and soils.
“The sandy loam soils and warm days and cool nights from the delta breeze is the perfect recipe for sweet tasting melons from Manteca,” Bryan said.
Van Groningen & Sons has looked into labor from the H-2A visa program but so far hasn’t used it, instead hiring its employees directly.
“It has been tough to find the quantity of workers needed but also the quality/ skill level of workers has become increasingly tougher,” Ryan said. “The cost of labor exceeds the rising minimum wage so we are working towards more and more mechanization.”
Labor is especially precious during the fall pumpkin harvest in September and October.
“Pumpkin season is a fast and furious time of the year,” Jason said. “We do everything in our power to harvest and pack with delicate care as quickly as possible to make sure everyone gets their pumpkin before Halloween.”
California’s zealous regulation of herbicidal, pesticidal and fungicidal sprays have led to a jungle of paperwork for growers to navigate, Ryan said.
“California’s stringent regulations surpass all other states,” Ryan said. “They are definitely trying to make doing business in California as tough as possible.”
The group has yet to fully commit toan organics program, although the Van Groningens have been dabbling in organic growing and some of their independent growers have added organic acres.
“Organics are definitely a growing sector in the produce department but are not huge in terms of consumer preference in melons due to the much higher cost of organic versus conventional,” he said. “Some organic leafy green items have only a slight upcharge compared to organic but with melons, the price difference is quite significant due to the big variation in yields.”
What the company has moved into is developing some processing products for melons and pumpkins that don’t meet the fresh market standards. Pumpkin seeds and watermelon puree, juice and concentrate are produced from harvest leftovers.
“As a grower, there is so much product that does not meet fresh market standards so we are trying to utilize 100% of our crop for some purpose,” Van Groningen said. “Our motivation is to be as resourceful and sustainable as a company as possible.”
Above, the Van Groningen family businessmen, from left, Vice President of Finance and Administration Paul Hiemstra, Vice President of Crops and Soils Bryan Van Groningen, Board President Dan Van Groningen, Board Chairman Robert Van Groningen, the late John Van Groningen, Vice President of Farming Operations Jason Van Groningen and President Ryan Van Groningen. Photos: Van Groningen & Sons